Sunday, July 05, 2009

Frank Black is the Capital of Kansas

originally published in the July 2/09 edition of prairie dog magazine. Black Francis plays solo acoustic at the Exchange on Wed., July 8.

In between breaking up the Pixies in 1992 and reuniting with them in 2004, Black Francis released nine albums as Frank Black. The first song on his 1993 self-titled solo debut was “Los Angeles”. The last song on 2003’s Show Me Your Tears, his final album with his country-rock band the Catholics, was “Manitoba”. Kind of like Nia Vardalos in reverse.
Now, a decade might seem like a long time to cover the distance from the world capital of show biz to the longitudinal centre of Canada, but consider this: In 25 years of writing Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler never achieved the required artistic confidence or intestinal certitude to send his private investigator to The Pas. Frank Black not only went there (at least in his song), but he brought in Van Dyke Parks to work on it.
Fascinatingly, during the 1920s, Manitoba had a provincial treasurer by the name Francis Black.
The Pixies’ six-year-run of off-kilter, noisy pop and infighting makes for great rock & roll mythologizing, and it’s hard to argue with Surfer Rosa and Doolittle as two of the best albums of the 80s, but it would be a shame to overlook--as many do--Francis’s solo career, which has been just as interesting, rewarding and often as surprising as his Pixies material.
He’s travelled through styles, growing out of the Pixies’ sound over his first three albums. He’s done country songs and soul songs, and even cut an album of wild minimalist electro-jazz remakes of Pixies songs with David Thomas of Pere Ubu’s collaborators Two Pale Boys. He quit making records for labels in the 90s, just before labels quit making records. Instead, he makes his own albums and then licenses them to labels for promotion and distribution. He once told me that he’s taken voice training. He’s one of the most down-to-earth people ever to record an album inspired by a semi-obscure Dutch painter (2007’s Blue Finger celebrates the late Herman Brood). Lately, he’s started a new band with his wife Violet called Grand Duchy and released their debut album earlier this year. He’s equally effective singing about Pong as he is about Spanish missionaries showing up in what would become the state of California. He’s an artist who is endlessly fascinating because he himself seems endlessly fascinated with the world.
In 1998 he recorded a song about Jonathan Richman, a fellow Bostonian whose first band the Modern Lovers cut what was probably the first actual punk rock album in 1972, but broke up before it was released in 1976. Richman, in fact, had by that time completely changed his sound, and to this day disappoints fans who come out to hear “She Cracked” by singing about Johan Vermeer. Surely there was some self-reflection involved when Frank Black wrote “The Man Who Was Too Loud.” I wonder if he’ll play that song at his upcoming acoustic show when Pixies fans shout out for “Debaser”?

Vancouver-related: Mats Gustafsson of The Thing was in town last week, playing half a dozen shows for the ends-today Jazz Festival, and I missed them all. But the new Thing album Bag It! is killer.

mp3: "Drop the Gun" by the Thing

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